In Trust

In the opening paragraphs of the short story “In Trust,” Australian writer David Malouf articulates so eloquently the themes of Obsolescing, that I’m quoting amply here, no need of my own interpretation or explanation. The boldface is my own. I hope that the copyright lords will be appeased if I urge you to read this book, even buy this book (The Complete Stories. New York: Vintage 2007), or anything else the masterful Malouf has written, for that matter.

We’ll let these paragraphs stand as our epigraph for 2012:

There is to begin with the paraphernalia of daily living: all those objects, knives, combs, coins, cups, razors, that are too familiar, too worn and stained with use, a doorknob, a baby’s rattle, or too swiftly in passage from hand to mouth or hand to hand to arouse more than casual interest. They are disposable, and are mostly disposed of without thought. Tram tickets, matchboxes, wooden serviette rings with a poker design of poinsettias, buttonhooks, beermats, longlife torch batteries, the lids of Doulton soup tureens, are carted of at last to a tip and become rubble, the sub-stratum of cities, or are pulped and go to earth; unless, by some quirk of circumstance, one or two examples are stranded so far up the beach in a distant decade that they become collectors’ items, and then so rare and evocative as to be the only survivors of their age.

Survivors of their age, from The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont museumofeverdaylife.org

So it is in the life of objects. They pass out of the hands of their first owners into a tortoiseshell cabinet, and then, whole or in fragments it scarcely matters, onto the shelves of museums. Isolated there, in the oddness of their being no longer common or repeatable, detached from their history and from the grime of use, they enter a new dimension. A quality of uniqueness develops in them and they glow with it as with the breath of a purer world — meaning only that we see them clearly now in the light of this one. An oil-lamp, a fragment of cloth so fragile that we feel the very grains and precious dust of its texture (the threads barely holding in their warp and woof), a perfume flask, a set of taws, a strigil, come wobbling towards us, the only angels perhaps we shall ever meet, though they bear no message but their own presence: we are here.

It is in a changed aspect of time that we recognise them, as if the substance of it — a denseness that prevented us from looking forward or too far back– had cleared at last. We see these objects and ourselves as co-existent, in the very moment of their first stepping out into their own being and in every instant now of their long pilgrimage towards us, in which they have gathered the fingerprints of their most casual users and the ghostly but still powerful presence of the the lives they served.

…We stare and are amazed. Were they once, we ask ourselves, as undistinguished as the buttons on our jacket or a stick of roll-on deodorant? Our own utensils and artefacts take on significance for a moment in the light of the future. Small coins glow in our pockets. Our world too seems vividly, unbearably present, yet mysteriously far off.

David Malouf, “In Trust,” The Complete Stories (New York: Vintage, 2007) pp.478-479

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4 responses to “In Trust

  1. “detached from their history and from the grime of use, they enter a new dimension” — this could be said of some people.

  2. Ann, this is a beautiful passage, and somehow really heart-breaking. To appease the gods, I went straight to amazon & put this book in my shopping basket. No doubt Malouf is honored to appear on your blog!

  3. Kitti, I’m glad you ordered the David Malouf stories. The range in that collection is incredible: some are poetic musings with the barest of plots (like In Trust), others have the span and depth of novels. His novels are great too. I’ll be interested in what you think.

  4. Ann, what a magnificently rich passage. I love this section: “a perfume flask, a set of taws, a strigil, come wobbling towards us, the only angels perhaps we shall ever meet, though they bear no message but their own presence: we are here.” The angels of the ordinary. I love that. We are surrounded by angels “vividly, unbearably present, yet mysteriously far off.”

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